Great Sea Fights: Cape St Vincent (1797) Part 1 – The Events

February 2021

This episode published on the anniversary of the Battle of St Vincent in 1797 launches the second of our Great Sea Fights series. Dr Sam Willis explores the events of Valentines Day 1797 when Admiral John Jervis daringly cut through a much larger Spanish fleet escorting a mercury convoy home from South America. This was the second major action of the Revolutionary War against France and the first against Spain, then France’s allies. The events of the battle remain unique in naval history. The Spanish lost four ships of the line, two of them personally boarded and captured by Horatio Nelson. The events were the first stage in Nelson becoming the most famous Englishman on earth and a naval hero like no other. Research undertaken by the naval historian Nicholas Blake – you can follow him on Twitter here. Videos produced with the assistance of the Lloyds Register Foundation and with thanks to the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

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    The Battle of Cape St Vincent in February 1797 was the second fleet action of the decade-long war against Revolutionary France and the first to propel Nelson to fame. Captain Collingwood, in the Excellent, called it ‘one of the most brilliant sea fights that ever was fought’: the British fleet of fifteen ships of the line, he wrote, ‘dashed at [the Spanish] like Griffins spouting fire, and having passed their line divided them into two parts, and by a skilful manoeuvre, which was led by Commodore Nelson, turned most of our force to the greater part where their Adm[iral] was’.[1] When the news reached England that the Royal Navy had not only beaten the Spanish fleet of twenty-seven ships of the line but captured four of them including two of the First Rate, and one of those thought to be the biggest ship in the world, it was declared to be quote ‘in all its circumstances, first and unparalleled in naval history’;[2] when the remains of the Spanish fleet reached Cadiz the officers were quote ‘hooted and pelted by the mob’.[3] Nelson wrote to Fanny, his wife: ‘The more I think of our late action, the more I am astonished; it absolutely appears a dream.’[4]

    Cape St Vincent is on the coast of Portugal, about a hundred miles south of Lisbon and two hundred miles north-west of Gibraltar. Since August, Spain and France had been allies in the war against Britain and Portugal. The British fleet, under Admiral Sir John Jervis, had withdrawn from Corsica and Elba in the Mediterranean and was based in the River Tagus, in Lisbon; the Spanish fleet, under Don José de Córdoba y Ramos, was escorting to Cadiz four ships laden with mercury (essential for refining the silver on which the Spanish economy depended) before joining the French off Brest for an invasion of England, but had been blown far west into the Atlantic.

    The British had warning of the Spanish fleet, because Nelson had passed through it in the fog on his way to join Jervis from Gibraltar. The Victory ordered the fleet to ‘Prepare for battle’ at 4.30pm on the 13th, and Spanish signal guns were heard to the south during the night.

    On the morning of the 14th, the two fleets were about fifteen miles apart, obscured in fog, the Spanish to windward with a wind from the south-west. The British fleet was in two divisions sailing south; the Spanish were also in two divisions, a small group sailing south protecting the mercury ships and a larger one sailing north that was not formed in a line of battle – the Spanish thought the British had only nine sail of the line,[5] and the master of the Prince George could not see ‘there was sufficient skill or discipline to execute any orders their commander might have given’.[6] The Spanish fleet was in fact very short of skilled men; the flagships had only sixty to eighty sailors on board, with the deficiency made up of around eight hundred pressed landsmen and untrained soldiers; one Spanish officer said ‘it was impossible, after the first broadside, for the captain or officers to persuade any of the crew to go aloft to repair the injured rigging: threats and punishments were equally ineffectual’.[7]

    The positions of the ships at the beginning of the battle can be imagined as the figures on a clock face, with north at twelve o’clock: the larger Spanish group at eleven o’clock, the British at two o’clock, and the smaller Spanish group at five o’clock, with the wind coming from seven o’clock. Jervis could have attacked the northern group directly, but by passing through the gap could cut off the smaller group – in the fog, the ships carrying the mercury were indistinguishable from battle ships.

    At 11 a.m., Jervis ordered the fleet to ‘Form in a line of battle ahead and astern of the Victory’, his flagship, at 11.12 to ‘Engage the enemy’, and at 11.30 ‘the Admiral intends to pass through enemy lines’, meaning the gap between the two Spanish groups: as he put it in his official dispatch, ‘such a moment was not to be lost . . . and I felt myself justified in departing from the regular system’, meaning to line his ships against the Spanish to prevent them turning his front or rear. The leading ship was HMS Culloden of 74 guns, commanded by Captain Thomas Troubridge, followed by the 98-gun ships Blenheim and Prince George, then three 74s and then the Victory, all exchanging fire with the southern group. By noon the Culloden had passed the last Spanish ship and the Victory signalled her to tack to pursue the northern division, remarking, ‘He tacks his ship to battle as if the eyes of all England were upon him.’[8] The British ships in the rear division were ordered to tack in succession.

    At about the same time, Vice-Admiral Moreno in the 112-gun Principe de Asturias in the smaller group tried to join Cordova and frustrate the British plan. He came about and led six ships north to sail behind the rear of the British; he reached the British line before the Victory tacked, and as the Victory’s log records, was ‘forced to tack close under [our] lee. [We] raked her both ahead and astern, he appeared to be in great confusion [and] bore up, as did six other of the enemy’s ships.’[9]

    The British rear division should now have tacked in turn as Jervis had ordered, but Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Thompson, in the 98-gun Britannia, did not respond. Nelson, in the 74-gun Captain, fifth in line in the rear division, saw that Cordova was trying to lead his ships across the rear of the British line to join the southern group. He seized his moment. Colonel Drinkwater, an observer in the 32-gun Lively, recalled that Nelson told him later: ‘I thought, unless by some prompt and extraordinary measure, the main body could be diverted from this course, [Jervis’s] well-arranged designs on the enemy would be frustrated. I therefore ordered the Captain to wear, and passing the rear of our squadron, directed Captain Miller to steer for the centre of the enemy’s fleet, where was their admiral-in-chief, seconded by two three-deckers’.[10] At the time, though, Drinkwater remembered: ‘The contest in which the commodore was thus engaged, appeared to us so unequal, and the contrast between the Captain, a small 74-gun ship, and the gigantic ships of the enemy, was so preposterous, that we could, at the moment, only view this proceeding of Nelson as rash and perilous in the extreme.’[11]

    Nelson was supported by the Culloden and then the Blenheim and the Prince George and other ships. Those in the Lively recalled: ‘The superiority of the British fire over that of the enemy, and its effects on the enemy’s hulls and sails were so evident that we . . . no longer hesitated to pronounce a glorious termination to the contest.’[12] At 2.35 the Excellent, Captain Collingwood, joined the melee from the rear division. In Nelson’s words, ‘The Excellent ranged up with every sail set, and hauling up his mainsail just astern, passed within ten feet of the San Nicolas, giving her a most awful and tremendous fire. The San Nicolas luffing up, the San Josef fell on board her, and the Excellent passing on for the Santissima Trinidad, the Captain resumed her station abreast of them, close alongside. At this time, the Captain having lost her fore topmast, not a sail, shroud, or rope standing, the wheel shot away, and incapable of further service in the line or in chase, I directed Captain Miller to put the helm a-starboard, and calling for the boarders, I directed them to board’. The San Nicolas surrendered, but was fired on from the San Josef, locked alongside, defeated but not yet surrendered, so Nelson took some of the boarding party into her main chains ‘in an instant’ – and as he wrote later, ‘on the quarter-deck of a Spanish First Rate, extravagant as the story may seem, did I receive the swords of the vanquished Spaniards; which as I received, I gave to William Fearney, one of my barge-men, who put them with the greatest sang-froid under his arm’ – or as Collingwood put it, ‘with as much composure as he would tie a bundle of faggots’.[13]

    The Santísima Trinidad had struck her colours with over two hundred killed or wounded, but was rescued, or recaptured, by two Spanish ships and with Admiral Moreno gathering the Spanish survivors around her as well as two new ships arriving from Algeciras, at 4.39 Jervis signalled the fleet to form line ahead in close order and secure the four prizes. At about 4.50 the Britannia, last in the rear division, found herself in the way of Moreno’s ships and exchanged fire before following the fleet to the north.

    The Spanish were seen in the morning, to windward and still a superior force, but did not renew the action and sailed for Cadiz, where they were blockaded. The British sailed first to Lagos Bay to land their three thousand prisoners then returned to Lisbon. Jervis wrote to all his captains: ‘No language I am possessed of can convey the high sense I entertain of the exemplary conduct of the flag officers, captains, officers, seamen, marines and soldiers embarked on board every ship of the squadron I have the honour to command.’[14]

    British casualties were seventy-three killed and around four hundred wounded; Spanish, between one and two thousand killed and wounded. Jervis was created Earl St Vincent; Nelson was knighted, and on 20 February promoted rear admiral, but that was by seniority and before the news of the battle reached England. William Fearney is remembered by Fearney Point on Nelson Island, British Columbia. The prize money for the four captured ships was £14,643 27s 12d. The San Josef served as a flagship in the Royal Navy until 1837 then as a gunnery training ship at Plymouth and was finally broken up in May 1849.

    Eye-witness accounts

    George Parsons

    George Parsons was born in Lambeth, in Surrey, around 1783. He joined the Royal Navy in July 1795 as a first-class volunteer in the 98-gun Barfleur, Captain James Dacres. At St Vincent the Barfleur was immediately astern of the Victory, and Parsons was a midshipman, stationed on the quarter deck. He was then a signal midshipman in the Foudroyant, under Nelson, commanded a gun boat in the expedition to Egypt and was promoted lieutenant in 1802. He took part in the Battle of Copenhagen in 1807 and the action of the Basque Roads in 1809 before retiring due to ill health in 1810. He became an Admiralty agent in Atlantic steam packets, and in 1843 he published his Nelsonian Reminiscences, where this account appears.

    *

    The 13th of February 1797 was employed by the British squadron, under Sir John Jervis, in getting ready for the ensuing fight, on which depended not only the fate of England, but the civilised world . . . Grinding cutlasses, sharpening pikes, flinting pistols, arming the boarders; filling powder, and fitting well-oiled gunlocks on our immense artillery by the gunners, slinging our lower yards with chains; and, in short, preparing a well-organised first-rate for this most important battle. The men and officers seemed to me to look taller, and the anticipation of victory was legibly written on each brow.

    During the long night . . . we heard many heavy guns to windward, and felt perfectly certain that they proceeded from the Spanish fleet, which could not be very remote. The day dawned in the east, and ‘Up all hammocks, ahoy!’ resounded through the decks . . . Some were sent aloft to barricade the tops, while the remainder were stowed with unusual care as a bulwark round the upper decks. Great haze had prevailed during the night, and it still continued. General signal flying on board the Victory for the fleet to make all sail on the starboard tack, preserving a close order of sailing in two lines, a vice-admiral leading each line, with Sir John in the Victory two points on the weather-bow, our two frigates and La Bonne Citoyenne sloop, under a press of sail, to windward. At nine, the latter made the signal for a strange fleet to windward; – then, that they were twenty-seven ships of the line and ten frigates, with a cloud of small craft, and that they were the Spanish fleet, under Don Cordova. These intimations of approaching battle were received by the British squadron with reiterated cheers; and so beautifully close was our order of sailing, that the flying jib-boom of the ship astern projected over the taffrail of her leader. Signal was made for the Culloden to chase to windward, and after a short period, to form the line of battle, without regard to the established order, by which manoeuvre Captain Troubridge led the British line; and one more competent could not have been selected. Here we must admire that wonderful tact and knowledge of human nature possessed by Sir John Jervis. Naval etiquette has established the senior captain as better fitted to lead, from his experience, and he is so placed in the established order of battle; but practice has sometimes proved the fallacy of such a theory; and Sir John, without offending, placed at the head of his line one of the most perfect seamen . . . No man could have led the British line better, or better have proved the unrivalled judgment of Sir John Jervis.

    ‘I have a glimpse through the fog of their leeward line,’ called Signal-Lieutenant Edghill, from the mainyard, and they loom like Beachy Head in a fog. By my soul, they are thumpers, for I distinctly make out four tier of ports in one of them, bearing an admiral’s flag.’

    ‘Don Cordova, in the Santissima Trinidad,’ said the vice-admiral; ‘and I trust in Providence that we shall reduce this mountain into a mole-hill before sunset.’

    The British had formed one of the most beautiful and close lines ever beheld. The fog drew up like a curtain, and disclosed the grandest sight I ever witnessed. The Spanish fleet, close on our weather bow, were making the most awkward attempts to form their line of battle, and they looked a complete forest huddled together; their commander-in-chief, covered with signals and running free on his leeward line, using his utmost endeavours to get them into order; but they seemed confusion worse confounded. I was certainly very young, but felt so elated as to walk on my toes, by way of appearing taller, as I bore oranges to the admiral and captain, selecting some for myself, which I stored in a snug corner in the stern gallery, as a corps de reserve. The breeze was just sufficient to cause all the sails to sleep, and we were close hauled on the starboard tack, with royals set, heading up for the Spanish fleet. Our supporting ship in the well-formed line happened to be the Captain, and Captain Dacres hailed, to say that he was desired by the vice-admiral to express his pleasure at being supported by Sir Horatio Nelson.

    It wanted some time of noon when the Culloden opened her fire on the Spanish van, and our gallant fifteen, so close together, soon imitated her example. The roar was like heavy thunder, and the ship reeled and shook as if she was inclined to fall in pieces. I felt a choking sensation from the smell and smoke of gunpowder, and did serious execution on the oranges. This uproar and blinding appeared to me to have lasted a considerable time; but I judged more from my feelings than my watch, when I heard our active signal-lieutenant report the Culloden’s signal to tack and break through the enemy’s line, and the fleet to follow in succession. Down went the Culloden’s helm, and she dashed through, as reported, for my vision was dazzled, between the nineteenth and twentieth ship of the enemy, closely followed by the Colossus, whose fore-yard was shot away in the slings, as she was in stays.

    ‘The Captain has put her helm down,’ called the signal-luff.

    ‘Only in the wind,’ said the vice-admiral; ‘she will box off directly.’

    The admiral was wrong, and Commodore Sir Horatio Nelson went clean about, and dashed in among the Spanish van, totally unsupported, leaving a break in the British line, conduct totally unprecedented, and only to be justified by the most complete success with which it was crowned. After losing sight for some time of the little Captain among the leviathans of Spain, one of them, by some chance, appeared close under our stern; just as I had applied one of my select store of oranges to my mouth, she opened an ill-directed fire, apparently into the admiral’s stern-gallery, that I was viewing her from. The first bang caused a cessation of my labours, the second made me drop a remarkably fine Maltese orange, which rolled away and was no more seen, and the third made me close my commanders on the quarter-deck, bearing to each an orange. An opening in the Spanish forest now shewed the Captain on board of two Spanish ships, large enough to hoist her in, and to our astonishment and joy a tattered union jack fluttered above their sweeping ensigns. The commodore had made a bridge of one to capture the other, and both were prizes to the Captain, Sir Horatio Nelson.

    At this time, the fleets being much intermingled, Sir John bore up in the Victory to rake the Salvador del Mundo, who carried a rear-admiral’s flag, and had been roughly used by the Excellent, which had passed on to assist the Orion, engaged by the Santissima Trinidad. What a smashing broadside was sent into the unfortunate Spaniard’s stern by the Victory! and before she could digest such a dose, we delivered another, which caused the Spanish flag to be quickly lowered, leaving our following friend to take possession of her.

    When the British squadron passed through the Spanish fleet, they cut out eight ships of the line, who then tacked, and kept hovering to windward of their distressed friends. The rear division now perceived the imminent peril of their commander-in-chief, who was dismasted and very hard pressed; indeed it was roundly asserted that he struck his colours, and rehoisted them on the rear division bearing down to his succour. The Conde Reigle, who led this division, ranging up alongside of His Majesty’s ship Britannia, received one of the most destructive broadsides, and hauled her wind in a great hurry, taking no further part in the action.

    The time [was] now nearly five P.M., and two first-rates and two second-rates shewed the gay union of England fluttering over the ensign of Spain. Our prizes and disabled ships had fallen to leeward, and as the day was closing, Sir John, who must have been amazed at his own success, made the signal for the fleet to re-form the line of battle to leeward, and bore up in the Victory to close them, and formed his line just to windward of his prizes, between them and the Spanish fleet, which still remained in the greatest disorder, their commander-in-chief, in the Santissima, with only her main-mast and main-yard standing. I believe the slaughter on board her so unprecedented, that Don Cordova, on shifting his flag, stated he had left four hundred of his men dead on her decks. The captured ships had suffered much, and certainly took a glutton’s share of beating with apathetic composure, their return being very feeble. Had the daring and heroic soul of Nelson been infused into the breast of every British commander on that glorious day, every one of their gorgeous ensigns would have bowed to the Jack of England, and Sir John Jervis would have been created a duke instead of Earl St. Vincent.

    John Nicol

    John Nicol was born in the small village of Currie, about six miles from Edinburgh, in 1755. His oldest brother was a lieutenant in the navy, who died of his wounds in the West Indies. He chose his father’s trade to please him and became a cooper, but as soon as he had served his indenture he joined the Kent’s Regard, a tender commanded by Lieutenant Ralph Douglas in Leith roads. He sailed around the world twice and visited all six inhabitable continents. He served aboard the Lady Juliana, a convict transport in the second fleet to Australia, and fought in the Goliath (which he calls the Goliah) in the gunner’s crew in both the Battle of Cape St Vincent and the Nile. In 1797 he was forty-two. His life story was published in Edinburgh in 1822 by John Howell.

    *

    While we lay at Lisbon we got private intelligence overland that the Spanish fleet was at sea. We with all despatch set sail in pursuit of them. We were so fortunate as to come in sight of them by break of day, on the 14th of February, off Cape St Vincent. They consisted of twenty-five sail, mostly three-deckers. We were only eighteen; but we were English, and we gave them their Valentines in style.

    Soon as we came in sight, a bustle commenced, not to be conceived or described. To do it justice, while every man was as busy as he could be, the greatest order prevailed. A serious cast was to be perceived on every face; but not a shade of doubt or fear. We rejoiced in a general action; not that we loved fighting; but we all wished to be free to return to our homes, and follow our own pursuits. We knew there was no other way of obtaining this than by defeating the enemy. ‘The hotter the war the sooner the peace,’ was a saying with us. When every thing was cleared, the ports open, the matches lighted, and guns run out, then we gave them three such cheers as are only to be heard in a British man-of-war. This intimidates the enemy more than a broadside, as they have often declared to me. It shows them all is right; and the men in the true spirit baying to be at them.

    During the action, my situation was not one of danger, but most wounding to my feelings, and trying to my patience. I was stationed in the after-magazine, serving powder from the screen, and could see nothing; but I could feel every shot that struck the Goliah, and the cries and groans of the wounded were most distressing, as there was only the thickness of the blankets of the screen between me and them. Busy as l was, the time hung upon me with a dreary weight. Not a soul spoke to me but the master-at-arms, as he went his rounds to inquire if all was safe. No sick person ever longed more for his physician than I for the voice of the master-at-arms. The surgeon’s mate at the commencement of the action, spoke a little; but his hands were soon too full of his own affairs.

    Those who were carrying run like wild creatures, and scarce opened their lips. I would far rather have been on the decks amid the bustle, for there the time flew on eagles’ wings. The Goliah was sore beset; for some time she had two three-deckers upon her. The men stood to their guns as cool as if they had been exercising. The admiral ordered the Britannia to our assistance. Ironsides, with her forty-two [pounders], soon made them sheer off. Towards the close of the action, the men were very weary. One lad put his head out of the porthole, saying, ‘Damn them, are they not going to strike yet?’ For us to strike was out of the question.

    At length the roar of the guns ceased, and I came on deck to see the effects of a great sea engagement; but such a scene of blood and desolation I want words to express. I had been in a great number of actions with single ships in the Proteus and Surprise, during the seven years I was in them. This was my first action in a fleet, and I had only a small share in it. We had destroyed a great number, and secured four three-deckers. One, they had the impiety to call·the Holy Ghost, we wished much to get; but they towed her off. The fleet was in such a shattered situation, we lay twenty-four hours in sight of them, repairing our rigging.

    It is after the action the disagreeable part commences; the crews are wrought to the utmost of their strength; for days they have no remission of their toil; repairing the rigging, and other parts injured in the action; their spirits are broke by fatigue: they have no leisure to talk of the battle; and when the usual round of duty returns, we do not choose to revert to a disagreeable subject. Who can speak of what he did, where all did their utmost?

    ***

    When the Admiralty issued its Naval General Service Medal in 1848, three hundred and forty-eight of those present at St Vincent were still alive and claimed it.[15] George Parsons was awarded an additional bar, for his action in Egypt. John Nicol did not. He died in Edinburgh, rescued from destitution by John Howell, in 1825.

    [1] Collingwood to Dr Alexander Carlyle, NRS 98, p80.

    [2] Padfield, Nelson’s War, p69.

    [3] Nelson to John M’Arthur, 16 March 1797, DLN II, 363.

    [4] Nelson to Mrs Nelson, 28 February 1797, DLN II, 358.

    [5] James, II, p33.

    [6] Willis, In the Hour of Victory, p103.

    [7] Drinkwater, Narrative, pp52–3.

    [8] Padfield, p62.

    [9] Robert Gardiner, Fleet Battle and Blockade, p123.

    [10] DLN, II, 347.

    [11] Drinkwater, Narrative, p79.

    [12] Padfield, p65.

    [13] Collingwood to Dr Alexander Carlyle, NRS 98, p81.

    [14] Padfield, p69.

    [15] Kenneth Douglas-Morris, Naval General Service Medal, 1982.

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